Australia is quietly excited about Winston Peters' return to power

by Bernard Lagan / 06 October, 2017
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Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in parliament. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters’ hostility to migrants makes him a natural fit across the Ditch.  

Though it might rile many New Zealanders, the return of Winston Peters to power – in either a National or Labour Cabinet – is likely to be welcomed in Australia, where there is frustration that transtasman migration has for too long been a Wellington blind spot.

Peters is one of few New Zealand politicians prepared to speak uncomfortable truths about the increasingly vexed issue of westerly migration across the Ditch and how Australia treats – or mistreats – hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who have settled there.

A few days before the election, the Australian newspaper reported him as saying that New Zealand owed its neighbour an apology for allowing so many of its own new migrants to flee across the Tasman once they’d obtained the New Zealand citizenship that allowed them to settle in Australia.

Peters said: “Our easy immigration policy allowed them to use us as a stepping stone to a country that without us they would never have got to – Australia. They came here, stayed a couple of years and moved on. Australia was always their goal. We were used.”

And so was Australia. A Pasifika underclass numbering tens of thousands in the tough south Brisbane area of Logan, with its attendant problems of high unemployment and welfare dependency, is one piece of the evidence.

Peters is also right to say that neither National Party leader Bill English nor Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has done much to advance the cause of transtasman relations; their knee-jerk reactions to Australia’s toughening stance on Kiwi migrants panders to New Zealand’s puerile Aussie-bashing culture.

Two weeks before the election, Ardern promised an eye for an eye, saying that if Australia increased fees for New Zealand students, she would do the same to Australian students studying in New Zealand.

She ignored the fact that Kiwis at Australian universities – subsidised by this country’s taxpayers – vastly outnumber Aussie tertiary students in New Zealand.

Although English has lately been more restrained on this issue – his son studied medicine at an Australian university – he allowed his frustrations to boil over in May. He ill-advisedly implied that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s struggle to get on top of Government spending was probably behind Australia’s threat to withdraw subsidies for New Zealand-born students.

We are yet to learn how Peters plans to curb the flight of Kiwis to Australia, although there are two obvious possibilities.

One would be to extend the residence requirement for New Zealand citizenship beyond the present five years. The other would be to change the transtasman travel arrangement with Australia so as to restrict the right of freshly minted New Zealand citizens to settle in Australia.

Australia has lost control of migration, thanks to the open-door policy extended to New Zealanders. And although the flow has slowed in recent years – a consequence of a high numbers of New Zealanders returning home from an economically sluggish Australia – it won’t last.

It was only five years ago that a record 53,000 New Zealanders moved to Australia in a single year, a number that caused grave misgivings on both sides of the Tasman.

The pivotal position of Peters’ New Zealand First Party in the election shows the depth of support for his policies to slash migration. He can hardly argue that Australia has a lesser right to seek to regain control of immigration numbers by trying to slow the flow from New Zealand.

Peters is the man to explain why Australia’s tolerance may have reached its limits.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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